Even with only a small crew of essential workers at the main Lab site, Peter Combs’ job as an electrician has been surprisingly routine during the stand-down that began March 17.
“It’s kind of business-as-usual for us,” said Combs, who has worked at the Lab for five years maintaining its fire-sprinkler systems. “Our work orders mainly consist of preventative maintenance,” he said, with weekly, monthly, and semi-annual tasks continuing to pour in as they had before.
“Our duties are the same. It didn’t really change for us too much, other than the fact that we have to social-distance ourselves,” he said. This means washing hands with more frequency, taking breaks apart from each other, not riding in vehicles together, and conducting online meetings rather than in-person meetings. The online meetings – his team uses the Zoom platform – have worked really well, and he said he’s hoping those will continue even when the Lab resumes normal operations.
Combs works in a team of four electricians, and typical tasks require a pair of electricians: one to operate an electrical panel and receive signals from the other worker who is in the field. So social distancing is not an issue for that type of work.
The fact that most Lab employees are now working off-site has led to a change in work schedules for Combs’ team. Some fire-systems testing would normally be conducted during the weekends, for example, to avoid disturbing Lab employees. So it’s now possible to carry out those tests during the week as most Lab buildings are empty, and there is no need to work on weekends during this Lab standby period.
“By doing function testing that we normally couldn’t do during weekdays, we’ve turned a negative into a positive,” he said.
Lab electricians continue to support other tradespeople that are still working at the Lab, too, by preventing fire systems from triggering during necessary repair or maintenance work, for example.
Even so, “It’s been really weird without all of the people here,” he said. “It’s very quiet. It’s kind of eery, spooky,” and his drive into work is unusually traffic-free.
Forced power shutdowns at the Lab during times of high wildfire risk last year provided good training in preparing for other emergencies, Combs noted. And this COVID-19-related stand-down in operations has been comparatively easy, as all electrical systems his team maintains at the Lab remain powered up.
“I’m hoping this thing ends soon,” he said of the stand-down, adding that he looks forward to seeing all of the Lab’s workers return to the site once it is safe to do so. “We need people to get back to the Lab and do their science. I know there is a lot of important research that’s not happening right now. Let’s all get back to business-as-usual so we can change the world.”